Why Michael Phelps is NOT the Greatest Olympian Ever

Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympian of all time. He is not even the greatest US Olympian of all time. He is the greatest swimmer of all time and he does have the most medals in Olympic history. Those are facts and they are indisputable. However, the greatest Olympian of all time is Carl Lewis.

Carl Lewis, the track and field superstar, is the greatest Olympian of all time for several reasons. First, Lewis qualified for 5 Olympic teams. He was denied the possibility of competing in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of the US boycott. However, he went on to compete in four other Olympiads: Los Angeles 1984; Seoul 1988; Barcelona 1992; and Atlanta 1996.

Second, Carl Lewis won nine gold medals and a silver medal over the course of those four Olympic Games. Carl Lewis only competed for 10 Olympic medals over those four Olympics. 90% gold is a pretty good success rate. It could have been higher but the 4x100m relay team dropped a baton in qualifying for the 1988 finals; which cost Lewis an almost assured gold.

Third, Lewis is the only person to ever defend a 100m gold medal and a long jump gold medal. He won the 1984 gold medal in the 100m and then repeated in 1988 after a controversial race where it turned out that Ben Johnson, the original winner, was disqualified for steroids. Lewis also won the long jump gold in those two Olympiads and then again in 1992 and again in 1996.

Lewis is one of three athletes ever to win one event, the long jump, in four straight Olympics. The other two are Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and American discuss thrower Al Oerter. The long jump is obviously a much more impressive event to repeat four times and again, it could’ve been five if he was allowed to compete in 1980.

Fourth, Carl Lewis equaled the achievements of the legendary sprinter Jesse Owens from the 1936 Berlin games where he won four gold medals; 100m; 200m; long jump; and 4x100m relay. Lewis did this in Los Angeles in 1984.

Lewis’ 1984 four gold medal achievement is essentially the equal of Michael Phelps historic eight gold medals at 2008 Beijing. Phelps also had six gold and two bronzes at the 2004 Athens Games and has since won two more gold in London 2012 and counting. However, he also didn’t medal in an event and got silver in two other events. Plus in 2000 Sydney, he didn’t win a medal, albeit he was only 15 and the youngest man to qualify for the Olympic swim team in 68 years.

Swimming gives many more chances to win each Olympiad and swimming is easier to sustain over a longer period of time. Plus a swimmer can start earlier. For instance, Phelps qualified at 15 or on the women’s side, remember Janet Evans, who started by winning three gold medals at 16 in Seoul.

Michael Phelps records are amazing, they really are. However, I cannot say that he is the greatest Olympian or even US Olympian of all time. Carl Lewis has to be considered the greatest for his consistency throughout four Olympiads and the fact that he was robbed of a chance at a fifth. Not to mention, he really should be credited with bringing the Olympics back to the forefront of the American people.

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics are best remembered for the controversial black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand; which turned many people off. 1972 was forever marred by the killing of the Israeli Olympians in Munich. Montreal 1976 was generally considered the worst Olympics in history and 1980 in Moscow was a US boycott.

If you’re an Olympic historian like me, then there are really only two lasting images of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Those are Mary Lou Retton winning gold in Gymnastics and of course, the great Carl Lewis equaling the record of the iconic Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in the face of Hitler in 1936 at Berlin.

Carl Lewis made the Olympics in Los Angeles and he unfortunately along with Ben Johnson made them in Seoul in 1988. What else can you remember from the 1988 Games? Matt Biondi and Janet Evans? Roy Jones Jr. getting screwed by the judges in a boxing match? The US men’s basketball team losing? 99% of people have no recollection of those events but they remember the Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson race and the subsequent disqualification.

When Lewis won the gold in long jump and the relay in Barcelona 1992 it was great. However, when he reached down deep and won the long jump in 1996 at age 35 in Atlanta where he had no business winning, it cemented him as the greatest Olympian ever. His feats will be tough to equal.

It is tough to compare sports, especially when there are so many more opportunities to win in swimming. The Soviets can also claim the best Olympians were their gymnasts back when they were pumping them full of steroids but I don’t think so.

Carl Lewis is the greatest Olympian of all time and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time (He was actually drafted by the Chicago Bulls of the NBA and the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL but never played in either league). If you don’t think so, let’s see whom the USOC picks to light the flame at the next Olympics in the United States. I’ll bet the house its Lewis and not Phelps.

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  1. I agree 100%, another interesting Olympian is Clara Hughes of Canada who has won 6 total medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games. Just an interesting story, considering her impact with the charity Right To Play.

    • She is an interesting story I agree but obviously not in the same discussion as greatest of all time…I like the Canada love though!

  2. Phelps is still one of the best, can’t argue that. I do have a bias towards my fellow Marylander….

    • Clearly he is right up there, I have him right behind Lewis but for the reasons I listed I go with Lewis. I also don’t think Phelps is the most significant swimmer, I give that to Spitz but more for the geo political stuff rather than greatness. You can’t argue that Phelps is the best swimmer ever…and yes being from MD is pretty cool

  3. You really make some good points here…good story

  4. You make some good points but simply put, 20 medals and 16 golds is tough to argue against…I go with Phelps

    • It’s a string case I agree obviously. However, as I said in the post, there are way more opportunities to win in swimming and Lewis is batting 90% in gold with the events he entered and competed for medals. The other was a silver…not too shabby

  5. Did you research this stuff or did you just know it?

  6. I think you are discounting the political importance of Jesse Owens in 1936 in the face of Hitler. I think that makes him the greatest Olympian ever.

    • I did mention that and I agree it was important. The difference as Owens only won in 1 Olympics in 1936. Granted they were cancelled the next two times for WWII but still. Those stories of Owens are legendary I agree but only go so far and are perhaps exaggerated with the right in the face of Hitler stuff. Lewis built his standing over a long period of time and was consistent over such a long period of time

  7. It seems that people get so shortsighted with what is happening in the present and forget what has happened in the past. It is kind of the same with how people say LeBron james is as good or better than Jordan. Did everyone forget how amazing he was? I blame the internet and all the talk shows. Lewis is definitely the best Olympian. Nothing against Phelps but Lewis was timeless.

  8. Well said Stephen

  9. Great arguments Lee…you’ve got me on board but I don’t know too much about the Olympics history. I do know that Phelps is a beast but Lockte is pretty cute!

  10. Jeremy Sanders says

    I agree about Carl Lewis but I think you aren’t giving enough credit to Mark Spitz and what he dealt with in Munich as a Jew when the Israeli team was taken hostage and killed.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong Jeremy but the hostage situation and subsequent killings were right after swimming wrapped and Spitz got his 7th gold medal. If I am not mistaken, as soon as that happened SPitz was taken out of Munich for his protection so I don’t think he actually dealt with much as far as threats during his amazing run in swimming that Olympiad as it happened right after. Spitz was still incredibly important in that Olympics as a Jew but not as a direct result of performing under fire so to speak.

  11. You are only focusing on American athletes. What about the great Russian gymnasts you vaguely mentioned? What about the Romanian women gymnasts? Norwegian skiers? Etc etc.

    • I think you’re missing the point here with some of these. The Romanian women were great individually for a long time and still can be but side from Nadia Comaneci who scored the perfect 10 in 1976, who else can you name? Not only that but how many Olympics did they win at…exactly 1. The Russian gymnasts led by Larissa Latynina are the ones you can argue the best because they won so many medals but again…a different sport with many more opportunities to win than a sprinter/long jumper at a given Olympiad. The Norwegian skiers are great but not in the same ballpark.

  12. Perhaps it is a Canadian bias (when there was some hope that Ben Johnson was telling the truth), but it has been a long held belief in this country that Carl was equally complicit in using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career — and was caught using a ‘masking’ substance shortly before Seoul. I don’t have an opinion (or really care), and perhaps it was a crutch the Canadian media was using, to soften the blow of such embarrasement (Ben Johnson). Even now, during this Olympics, I have read references to the suspicion that surrounds Carl Lewis.


    • Haha, Mr. Gilroy…In 2003 it was revealed that Lewis tested positive three times before the 1988 Olympics for some banned stimulants found in cold medication, and had been banned from the Seoul Olympics and from competition for six months. The USOC accepted his claim of inadvertent use and overturned the decision.

      That was a slight blow but those stimulants were not performance enhancing like Johnson’s were. Johnson had been a known doper for years and all the athletes knew about it. Lewis, to his credit, raced uphill against a known cheater and never actually took roids. He lost in 1987 Worlds which I remember like it was yesterday and then originally in the Olympics…The IOC got it right…the Canadian media is salty as always even back then! It was a fun story and still is to talk about.

  13. I have to agree with what you’ve said. I live and have lived in LA for 40 years and when Carl Lewis won those gold medals in the Olympics in 1984, it was like the Lakers winning when they had Show Time.

  14. Like the way of thinking but disagree on a few points. Phelps was 19 when he competed in his first Olympics, Lewis would have been 20, as you said it was Moscow and it it is hard to say what if but it really isn’t a big age difference. And you do currently have an 18 year old track and field Olympian athlete competing for the US. Also really disagree with the argument that swimming is all the same. Backstroke is entirely different from breaststroke which is from butterfly etc. Yes you’re in the pool for all of them but they do require a different skillset and physical strengths (and I speak from competitive experience here) and you’re not automatically good at one if you are at the other. Lewis competed in long jump from the start, he actually started running after, not the other way round (albeit not at the Olympics), point is it wasn’t something he just picked up to give it a go. Also for me it is part of the same family, it is all part of track and field and if you can group all the swim styles then an athlete who can run can also jump etc, that’s why you have hepathalons et al. It takes a lot of guts and stamina to compete in everything you can, Lewis had the chance to compete in a lot more but didn’t. For me a true Olympian needs guts and stamina even more than a clean medal statistic because that’s the spirit. Lewis was amazing of course and what no one can take away from him is that he put TF on the map in the States when no one really cared about it and he believed in the sport but you can’t hold it against Phelps that swimming is already popular! Also Lewis no longer holds any Olympic records, only time will tell with Phelps of course but still.

    • Hey Franzi…Phelps was 15 when he competed in Sydney 2000 and Lewis would have been 19 in Moscow 1980-Fact.

      Lewis also ran all the time but didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 1980 in the sprints because he wasn’t strong enough yet but was always a good jumper. Males mature physically at a later age which is why most sprinters are in mid 20’s when they hit their stride where as the swim muscles develop quicker-I don’t know but a lot more younger swimmers medal than track for both men and women, that’s a fact. The necessary muscles are different.

      What you and Mike is his comment said was Lewis didn’t compete in enough events…you have to qualify for those events and he didn’t qualify for the sprints after Seoul except for the relay. He would have competed had he qualified, it’s when the US had guys like Michael Johnson and Leroy Burrell etc who were younger and faster by 1992 and 1996.

      Lewis doesn’t have any Olympic records anymore no because records fall as athletes get bigger and faster….how many records will Phelps have in 8 years, probably none-that’s just the way it goes so that point is moot.

  15. You are forgetting to point out Carl Lewis had a chance to win 16 medals if he competed in all his events at all of those olympics which if he didn’t win them would have hurt his percentage of gold wins, instead he chose to specialise in the ones he would win.
    Phelps seems to pretty much enter almost everything he can. I do however find it hard to argue for anyone who wears a speedo for a living to be the best olympian of all time.

    • Lewis didn’t qualify for the sprints after 1988 which is why he didn’t compete because he was surpassed by the younger guys…wasn’t because he chose not to compete. Swimmers all compete in medleys and the best guys are good at all of them so makes sense for them compete in the independent events much like gymnasts do. Phelps declined a few events this as well.

      Again, not disparaging Phelps in any way, he’s just not as great an Olympic athlete in my opinion for the reasons and facts I stated.

  16. I think you make great arguments backed up by facts here Lee. I completely agree with you on the Lewis/Phelps thing although no disrespect to Phelps. The only other athlete that can even be in the conversation is Jim Thorpe…of course different era etc.

    So many athletes have one great Olympics like FloJo, Bolt, Moses etc and then can’t sustain it. Lewis doing it in the LJ over 4 Olympics is pretty impressive especially when you say it’s one of three times that’s ever happened and one was sailing. I didn’t know sailing was a sport in the Olympics.

    • Ya it’s almost impossible to compare someone like Jim Thorpe to modern day athletes but I agree he was great and set Stockholm 1912 afire. I’ve actually been to that stadium which I thought was really cool.

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